From the Field is Border Criminologies’ ‘mini-post’ series featuring news from researchers currently in the field. In this installment, Mary Bosworth reflects on a recent event she attended in Oxford aimed at generating change in the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Last week I was invited to a supper event at the home of the Oxfordshire High Sheriff, Prof. Graham Upton, along with 14 others from the county who shared a common interest in, and concern for, refugee and asylum seekers. Over a home-cooked meal, we came together from the academy, the voluntary sector, the judiciary, the law, the custodial sector with some who had fled persecution, eventually finding safety in the UK.

The Current coat of arms of the high sheriff. "The 4 pigs represent his children and his love of pigs, the kangaroo his links with Australia, the quill his academic background and the crossed sticks his love of DIY and his wife’s love of the garden." (Photo: Oxfordshire County Council)
In the intimate setting of a home, we explored connections and gaps.  Why were academics not more involved in local issues, someone from the voluntary sector wanted to know.  How might academics and volunteers obtain wider access to Campsfield House, they asked.  Was there a way to pool resources, and prevent duplication of effort during current economic conditions? How might the first screening interview for asylum seekers be better handled?  What steps might we all take to engage with the wider community to raise awareness about these issues?

Under the careful mentorship of the High Sheriff (such a wonderful title, what else could we do but obey?), provisional decisions were made.  The centre manager agreed to look into inviting members from the voluntary sector and refugees to staff training.  First hand accounts, he thought, might be a powerful means of educating his staff.  The voluntary sector organisations were keen to include students, and academics in their daily support work and in their research.  They were particularly keen to disseminate their research findings more widely, working in concert with the university sector. In terms of widening debate, it was broadly agreed that Oxford should become a ‘City of Sanctuary.’

The dinner was just the start. In March, plans are afoot for a public event at the Oxford Playhouse, following the staging of Refugee Boy. In June, participants hope to gather testimonies for inclusion in local media in refugee week. The involvement of local politicians and Oxfordshire MPs, as well as the local media, was thought to be key.

The dinner sought to lay the foundation for change, by building a network. In so doing, it raised some profound questions. How is change brought about? How might we seek out others with similar interests? What are some risks in doing so? Where are the barriers? Particularly when members of the wider network are themselves vulnerable, how can we be sure that we do not increase their pain and anxiety? A network is a neutral term, yet organisations have differing levels of influence, funding and time. How might those factors shape agendas and strategies? What sorts of things do we need to watch out for?

Bringing the discussion about what is at heart a politics and ethics of exclusion into the home was a deeply symbolic and moving gesture. It set the tone and opened the possibility for compassion and collegiality, by personalizing the discussion. In so doing it offered a model far removed from the kinds of venues―academic seminars, public hearings, legal suites, the home office―in which asylum and refugee matters are usually explored. As the months proceed we will report on local initiatives in this field. In the meantime, however, we would love to hear from others looking into how to generate change.

See also other mini-posts from the series From the Field:

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